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Getting real about technology - part 1

Energy Monitoring By Tim Delane, Senior Engineer, Building Performance – 02 October 2023

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Tim Delane

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There is a major buzz around the promise of technology for improving the operation of buildings. But while the promise is huge, the expectations can get out of hand. No matter how good a technological idea is, its usefulness is always determined by what happens once it is taken out of the box, so to speak.

One of the major challenges, for example, is keeping the data up to date with the operations. A digital twin commissioned at the point of handover is not the whole story of the asset. As soon as a building is occupied, things begin to change. Parts are swapped in or out, controls are fine-tuned or upgraded, features that seemed like a great idea on paper prove to be redundant, or others may be added due to occupant demand or asset manager requirements. Upgrades also occur, particularly in tenancies as fitouts change with occupants.

All of which means the physical building and its systems will increasingly not mirror the digital twin unless there is human effort engaged in ensuring what happens in the tangible world is updated in the virtual space.

How to weigh up the benefits

In many cases, with an entire building, the benefits of a full digital twin (or any operational tech) will only be realised if there is continued investment in its upkeep during the operational phase. Keep in mind that unless the model IS kept up to date, over time there will most likely be diminishing returns on the investment. The potential is often forgotten as the costs of regular updates, upgrades and vigilant data management start to impact the bottom line.

However, while the costs associated with digital technologies have been established, new applications continue to be developed and the potential benefits continue to grow.

A project developed in BIM (Building Information Modelling) could be leveraged to enable further benefits to be achieved. BIM models could be very beneficial for calculating embodied carbon and keeping track of embodied carbon as changes are made to buildings over the years. Building owners, managers and tenants could accurately determine the embodied carbon associated with a new fitout or building upgrade and utilise digital twin technologies to compare it to the actual reductions in operational carbon emissions that are likely to be achieved.

Given the increased regulatory and investor focus on minimising new embodied carbon and maintaining existing embodied carbon in use for as long as possible, this is potentially a really strong incentive for asset owners and managers to invest in BIM models and keep them up to date, as they can be useful for predicting and monitoring the effects of fitouts/upgrades/refurbs on operational energy and carbon emissions.

Driving sustainability through the targeted application of technology could help to attract high quality tenants and incentivise their investment in a building’s digital platforms and engagement with its outcomes.

The human aspect of getting value from the technology

Any form of digital representation has to be partnered with an effective human system also. This is another aspect of the cost of technology – training and retaining staff that can engage with the virtual toolkit. And to stay relevant, both the digital assets and the people need to stay current and up to date, adding an element of IT and data management into the task load of the building management team.

To ensure this workload delivers a return on effort and investment, it is important to recognise that while there is so much technology can do, the decisions around technology adoption should be targeted to the most beneficial outputs.

Ideally, targets would revolve around the aspects of operating, managing and maintaining a building that are the most onerous burdens for the building management team. Then identify the information that will be most helpful, and what technology can do to deliver that insight in a practical and useable form.

So rather than getting all the bells and whistles, get the ones that will make the most productive sense.

Where those capabilities still rely on intensive data management and personnel with specific technical capabilities, the best outcome may be achieved by engaging a dedicated provider on a long-term contract to maximise the benefits and minimise the burden on building management.